Mary Beard Lecture Review

November 1, 2018
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By Claudia Trezza.

An international audience packed the American Academy in Rome’s Villa Aurelia on September 25 to hear Mary Beard, one of the world’s most celebrated scholars of the ancient world, kick off the year’s series of programs with a lecture titled “The Classical Body: The Naked and the Nude.” Beard, who will have an extended stay at the American Academy in Rome in the spring of 2019 in the role of Lucy Shoe Meritt Resident in Classical Studies and Archaeology, called the talk but an “appetizer” for all that was to follow. If the evening’s discussion was any indication, this year’s program theme, “New Work in the Arts & Humanities: The Body,” will be a fulfilling one.

Beard, an author of eighteen books including the critically acclaimed The Roman Triumph (2007), SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015), and the manifesto Women in Power (2017), is familiar to scholars, television viewers, and readers of her popular blog, hosted by the Times Literary Supplement. She brought her insights into the classical world, modern society, and the lives of women in both of them, to the audience spilling into the hallways and the Villa’s gardens.

In her talk, Beard spoke about how writers, poets, and critics of ancient Greece and Rome found the naked sculptures or decapitated busts of statues “subversive,” “disgusting,” and “disturbing.” She sought to recapture that “awkward edgy newness” and those “radical, unexpected” elements of classical masterpieces that have grown steadily familiar over the centuries. Beard underlined the challenge to modern artists of recognizing “the radical conventions of ancient sculpture of the human body, and finding a space for us to be startled again.”

She began by talking about the Aphrodite of Knidos, among the first representations of the nude female in Greek history. Sculpted in the early fourth century BCE on the west coast of Greece, the statue was considered so radical that the city of Kos turned it down, in what Beard described as one of the great tourism-industry blunders of the ancient world. The statue ended up in Knidos, in modern day Turkey, where it sparked the imagination of Greek writers and thinkers. According to the essayist Lucian, one young man attempted to copulate with the statue and left a “mark of lust” on its thigh. Then he threw himself off a cliff. The story served as a launching point for Beard’s thoughts on the blurry line between the female flesh and its marble representation, and the desire of men to possess both.

While she cautioned against applying current notions of sexual identity to the artists and audiences of the ancient world, her talk explored the “fluidity of gender” in ancient art. She discussed the classical statue of the hermaphrodite with female breasts and a penis reclining in “dreamy lushness”—a copy of which is in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome—as well as other iconic works that challenge the ancient and modern viewer. They jolt us “out of our comfort zones,” she said, and suggested that “the body’s form might not fit binary gender divisions.”

The American Academy in Rome’s director, John Ochsendorf, introduced Beard as a “living legend” and took note of the impressive turnout by saying the Academy would “reserve the Circus Maximus” for the next engagement. He also paid tribute to the late Christina Huemer, after whom the lecture series is named. As the Academy’s first Drue Heinz Librarian, serving from 1992 to 2007, Huemer was cherished for her deep commitment to the many Academy Fellows, Residents, and readers in the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library. Ochsendorf called her a “visionary librarian.”

The presentation and a brief question-and-answer period were livestreamed. The video is accessible at